I haven’t had a Saturday
I haven’t had a Saturday like this in two months. And I’m not sure what to do with it. But I try. Here at home I remind myself that I’m a mother. All week I’ve been making more of an effort. I fed and entertained and drove my younger daughter’s friends, took both my daughters shopping yesterday (jeans are suddenly too small and they’re self-conscious and/or I am conscious of how much they’ve grown in two months). We’ve talked and talked in the car, at dinner, mostly I refrain from arguing and try to listen. A few days earlier, I told my husband I’d decided not to visit my mother in the nursing home in northern Virginia as I have so many times recently and he said, Thank you. At the time I’d thought it an odd response, but today, on this Saturday he’s gone to the range to hit golf balls and I can count the weekends he’s had to manage by himself while I’ve been gone. And the thank you resonates. It’s been a long while since I’ve been home, really home. And I’m not sure I’m there yet. Part of me is still in Virginia, sitting in my car in the parking lot, jumping wave upon wave of sadness, about to walk into my mother’s small room on the second floor. Will you remember me, Mama?
Today, I have to remind myself that this is my home, that this is my family, that I’m not playing house. I’m not playing at being a mother. As long as my mother was with me, as long as she was giving me advice, I could play my own role of mother lightly and my mother remained the authentic mother, the one whom I could aspire to. At least that’s what comes to me now, here at this moment in my own house 300+ miles from her. I suppose it will be years yet before I understand any of this.
The loss is inevitable. I know it. The end nears. Every day the end nears. All things come to an end. All around me are people in the same place I am. Losses close in at the age we are, with parents the age they are, it is part of this living thing we do. The dying part, the end part. The truth is we know. We have always known.
My mother, the woman I knew as my mother for now, has come to an end. My therapist says acknowledge that. Take that in. Sit with it. My therapist says my children have lost a mother too these past two months. Their mother. And her words flicker in me, little roadside flare. I have broken down on the side of the road and my children with me. Face that. Accept it. Look. Rest a while. Take in the view. Help comes in all directions.
We are in the middle
We are in the middle of my mother’s illness. And it floods my days and nights, this illness, waist high, neck high, hairline high, its waterline rises without warning. Last night I heard someone stacking ceramic bowls in the kitchen. So much noise. One bowl into another bowl into another. I asked my husband, “Who’s in our house?” But he said nothing because he was asleep. I listened and waited for the sounds to cease, afraid to find out.
There are times when my mother looks at me, from her reclining hospital bed. There are times when her eyes remind me of those belonging to a gorilla in the Bronx Zoo. The one who sat immovable on a rock, looking steadily at me. The one with the eyes that were trying to figure out who I am. Who are you? Who are you really? The one with the eyes that worked so hard that the rest of the face was slack. Who are you?
There are times when my mother tells me my baby is crying. “I hear her,” she says. “Do you have enough milk?” And she means do I have enough breast milk because there was a time when that was what she helped me with, making me meeuk guk, so my body would feed my child. I say, “Mama, she’s grown up now. Mama, remember? How old is Sahra, Mama, remember?” And something passes in front of her eyes and she reaches for it, she says, “Ten.” And I say, “Good one, Mama. I wish she was ten but she’s thirteen now. Can you believe it? I can’t believe it either.”
There was a time my mother stayed with me in my tiny apartment in the city and carried a large bag of potatoes from the market on the corner. “Better price,” she said, perspiration making her lovely long face shine. She was too old even then at 69 to be carrying such weight. But every day she cooked fresh soup for me, keeping it simmering until I was ready, brought it hot to my lips. She took care of my baby and showed me how to think of her as myself. “Wouldn’t you be cold if you were undressed like this?”
Sometimes my mother in this current state, while in the hospital, travels to other places. She visited a nurse’s home, and then asked the nurse when the nurse turned my mother in her hospital bed, “How’s your daughter’s violin practice coming along?” The nurse looked startled. My mother visited me 300 miles away. The other day I told my husband I was angry at my mother for asking for me. She asks and asks for me, everyone tells me, she is asking for you, when are you coming to visit, she is asking for you, when will you come? And I think of how she has been there in my life, in 47 years of my life, asking me to be a doctor, asking me to marry a Korean man, asking me to make her happy, asking, asking me to forgive my father. And even now still from the hospital she is asking me and I want to throw it back, all of it, all of her asking, I want to say I don’t want your damn asking. And I went to sleep crying, upended, drowned. In the morning my father called to say my mother wanted to talk to me and when I answered she said, “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. Don’t come. Stay home. Don’t come.”
The facts are my mother had a stroke. Her brain was deprived of blood in two large regions. She has, during the month of February, during her birthday month, been in ICU twice and remains now in an acute pulmonary unit. She has been on a ventilator and off. She has told me twice that she would like to go now. As in away, as in I’m sorry but I’d like to go. And twice I begged her to stay. But recently she has tingling sensations on her paralyzed left side and the physical therapists have been sitting her up in a chair, tilted way back. We are making plans again. I am squashing down the panic. She can call you by name if you enter her hospital room and even joke about it, half of her mouth lifting. “Jimin, my daughter,” she tells the nurse when the nurse asks. “This is, of course, my daughter. Do you think I wouldn’t know?” And then my mother turns to me, if she has been able to swallow enough of her spit that day to have a clear throat, she says to me in Korean, “Let’s have pizza for lunch. No meat because eating meat will kill me. Only vegetables.” And I tell her we will as soon as she can get out of her bed. To which she nods, once, before she asks me again. “When can we have pizza for lunch?” When I left for college years ago, she told me that she wouldn’t have an excuse to buy pizza anymore, the one American food she loved. “Have it for yourself,” I told her back then. But she shook her head at that. “We’re in a hospital, Mama,” I say now. And she answers, “If you can get someone to move these suitcases that are on top of me, we can go very soon.”
I’ve been sleeping
I’ve been sleeping in the med/surg ICU, room 17, in a chair I can’t completely fold out into a bed. There’s an air vent above me that blows cold air down on my head. The blanket is beige. No matter how large they make the windows, the concept of day and night doesn’t exist in this place. There are small trees of machines around my mother’s bed. They’re good at saving lungs here, hearts too. Minds aren’t so much of a concern. The docs come and stand outside my mother’s door. They don’t touch her. All the info they need is on computer screens. They adjust meds here and there, direct the nurse to draw blood from her unparalyzed arm again. Bruises become her skin color. She talks to me throughout the night, but all I can make out is my name. So I say, Yes, Mama? And she continues, so much to tell me. Yes, Mama? I know, Mama. I know.
Cold, Birthday, Fragments
The boiler is having trouble keeping the house warm. I check the thermostat, set for 74 but it rises no higher than 71. But it’s not a true 71. It is more like 60. The drafts around the door and window frames howl. We’ve rolled up rugs under the doors, pushed old towels against the sills, but it’s the way the frames were set into the stone that hold the gaps. When we first moved out of the city, I didn’t know how cold it could get. And I’d grown up in lake effect country in southwestern New York. But our house had been a suburban one, on a block with city water, and city sewage, city heat. The house we moved to fifty miles north of New York City had an oil tank that was filled by a private company. At the closing, the owner of the house said her husband had been smart to forego the maintenance contract with the oil company. “Check the oil level each day,” she said. “When it gets low, call the truck.” I nodded. But there were days I forgot to check and so there were mornings when we woke up to stark quiet cold. No blowers of the heater running. An eerie quiet as if the house had died. And if we stayed a moment longer in it, we too would die. I’d just had my second baby by then and it felt like a race, the house sinking into the ice outside, a coffin closing on all of us. We’ve since moved from that house, but this one a few miles away, with a service contract with an oil company now, has trouble holding the heat inside.
I was born in winter. My mother says I was born during the coldest week of the coldest month in Korea. My father was away in Vietnam, in the army. He sent two blankets when he heard I was born. A pale pink one and a yellow one, made of cotton. We lived with my uncle, my mother’s oldest brother. This part of the story can get complicated.
Whenever my birthday comes up, there’s confusion. The exact day, for example, is confusing. Around much regarding my parents and me, there’s confusion. My father thought, for another example, that I should try to eat a hard boiled egg when I was two years old. I remember distinctly not wanting to eat what he held out in his hand. I refused, he insisted. I refused, he insisted. My mother sided with me, then she sided with him. I ate the egg, choked, and had to be rushed to the hospital to have the egg removed from my throat.
I had a sister back then, only she wasn’t my sister. She had been adopted into our family for the express purpose of taking care of my brother and me. My mother worked at the clinic. My sister was five or six years older than my brother who was four years older than me. This puts her at 12, 13, 14 when I was three. I remember sitting in the underground kitchen, on the edge of a stone fireplace, watching her cook. I remember the kitchen was warm in winter. I remember she allowed me to stay. I don’t remember if I liked her but there’s a photo where she holds my hand, my mother and my aunt and my grandmother behind us.
The Root of the Trouble
Sometimes beginnings are very clear. Our first house in Jamestown was on Myrtle Street. It belonged to the hospital like every house we lived in at that time. But that’s not what I want to talk about. It sat between two houses. Our neighbor to our right was a woman who lived alone. She was old, exceedingly old. I visited her, in the evenings while other kids played hide and sneak, running past her window, a lovely turreted semicircle alcove in the corner of her sitting room. I had tea with her. I don’t remember much of it except that she was kind and the sitting room was full of embroidery. Embroidered roses on cushions, embroidered leaves on doilies, embroidered fruit in frames on the walls. I felt as thought I were in a cave of pincushions, insulated from the world.
I told her something about my life as a third grader and she listened. I remember she was a good listener. And she told me something about her life as she approached the end of it. The volume on those conversations are on mute. Instead it’s the sense of touch I remember most. Her hands softer than mine when she passed the tea cup to me, as if the skin were sanded down, the thinnest layer before rocky blue veins. Sometimes I worried I’d sink too far into the cushion of her wing backed chair, but she helped me gain the floor again when I was ready to leave. The tea she poured into dainty porcelain cups. The sour lemon slice she squeezed into her cup, the smell of lemon in the air suddenly making my nose itch.
On the other side of us lived a family of four. I’ll call them the Maples. Ted and Tina Maple and their son named Tom and their daughter named Tammy. Too many T names, you think? But that’s the kind of designer family they were. Here I’ll take a little license. I don’t know how my brother remembers it but I see something here in what happened one summer weekend afternoon that I think influenced something else that happened in his life, which was pivotal. Maybe it informed my life too, more than I think. This is the problem of having a writer in the family who thinks too much about events in your life.
But here goes. And then I’ll get to my story about the gerbils. First off, Tommy was a mean boy. Tommy had buckteeth and freckles and ears that were glued to the side of his head. No space, I swear. His sister, my friend, confirmed it. The expression on his face at any given moment was leering which was hard to pull off because of his buckteeth, but he accomplished it.
He was supposed to bury a dead bird. I don’t know how it died to begin with. Maybe he had something to do with it. We stood behind the garage, a muddy patch, a circle of his friends, me and Tommy’s sister, Tammy, by my side. He was excessively nice to her, I remember that. “Sure, you can come and watch,” he said when she asked. “But don’t bring your friend.” This, while leering at me. She didn’t reply but a few minutes later, after he and his friends had gone behind the garage, she invited me to take a peek. He’d dug the hole already with a shovel when we arrived. He said hello to Tammy and then he picked up the bird with his fingers and aimed it at me. I froze, the muddy, bloody creature hurtled toward me. The target: my bare leg below my knit poncho. It struck. I felt it, wet tender flesh and feathers. I stared at the dead sparrow in horror before I ran from them all, his friends and his sister, as they cackled, guffawed, celebrated my terror.
Tommy played with my brother in the yard sometimes too. My brother was a year older than him so he was taller and they threw a baseball around or built snow forts together. That sort of thing. Friends by proximity. And friends because Ted and Tina Maple dressed in the same color came over together expressing great hope that we children would be great friends. And my parents nodded agreement. Later we’d move to a neighborhood where that did indeed happen, but that year on Myrtle Street, wishes would not make it so.
It was one of those games of catch that started the incident. Jiho and Tommy, throwing a baseball back and forth. My memory is certainly wrong, but here’s what comes to me. Jiho tossed the ball and Todd missed and the ball went through Todd’s kitchen window. Ted and Tina Maple came in synchronized steps to our door and my father apologized. Profusely apologized. His face splotchy pink with embarrassment. He made Jiho apologize. The proper thing to do. Maybe something monetary to repair the window was arranged. And the boys, Jiho and Tommy, were made to stand there and be a part of the negotiation. My brother hung his head. Tommy gloated. And then Tommy said something. Maybe “Chink”. “Maybe it was “Yeah, you Chink better pay.” Maybe it wasn’t. But Jiho ran at him and knocked him to the ground and sat on top of him and punched his face before my father lifted him off and Ted and Tina Maple bent over Tommy. Tommy didn’t get up right away. The lower half of his face was bleeding. Ted or Tina or both insisted on calling an ambulance. It was only a bloody nose. Not even broken. My father, the doctor, examined it once Ted and Tina let him, with a protesting Tommy all the while. I remember for a fact that Tommy was crying on the ground. Angry crying. Mean crying. I didn’t feel bad for him at all.
And maybe none of this happened this way. Maybe it was a crab apple and not a ball. The memory materializes in one version and then another. And then the whole afterwards disappears until I remember again, a year later, at a different house, at school, I remember hearing that some boys tripped my brother, taunted and tripped and made fun of my brother. And I remember hearing that my brother did nothing. And my parents moved him to another school, a small Catholic school where no one taunted him. And he would skip grades there and eventually meet up in school again, years ahead of Tommy of course, but he’d meet those boys who taunted him again and they would love him. They would applaud him. Make him president and their king. And we learned a lesson in all that about when to throw a punch maybe. And how never to do that again. Which wasn’t a good lesson for me. Sometimes a girl should throw a punch, right? And gerbils? Yes, Tammy had two gerbils she would invite me to play with in her tiny foyer. Glass doors closed, we’d sit with our legs touching the far wall. I let those ugly gray gerbils with their slimy tails run over my legs back and forth even when I didn’t want to. That would be the beginning of my phobia about rodents for the rest of my life.